I'M NOT SURE how we got to this particular moment in cinematic history—a moment in which a biopic about an unconventional mathematician seems nothing short of a rote cliché. But here we are. In the footsteps of A Beautiful Mind and The Imitation Game comes The Man Who Knew Infinity, an utterly familiar film that explores the life of Indian mathematician Srinivasa Ramanujan.
Ramanujan's story is pretty fascinating: Self-taught, he left Madras at age 26 for Cambridge, where he collaborated with G.H. Hardy to get his pioneering work published. Ramanujan's breakthroughs in the study of math (or, as the English call it, "maths") changed the field. But he arrived in England right before World War I erupted, and had difficulty adjusting to the country's climate and diet. He died six years later after returning to India.
Unfortunately, the perspective of The Man Who Knew Infinity is a wholly English one, with Hardy (Jeremy Irons) a much more interesting character than Ramanujan (Dev Patel). We live in a city in which the social and political climate is such that a restaurant offering "colonial" cuisine sparks a public outcry; The Man Who Knew Infinity's disinterest in the British Empire's occupation of India—and its downplaying of the harshness of life for those under its imperial hand—isn't likely to play well here. What's worse is how the movie treats Ramanujan like a mystic savant from a faraway land, an unknowable genius with mathe-magic powers.
Even taking all that into account, the film's greatest offense is its inoffensiveness. Perhaps smartly, it downplays the math (apart from a few scenes explaining partition theory). But while Ramanujan was a fascinating figure in real life, his movie representation is opaque and uninteresting. It doesn't add up.